Fire last month destroyed former home of popular Aztec justice of the peace
AZTEC — A fire last month at 615 East Blanco St. destroyed the home of a popular city figure, but the law office where he made a name for himself as justice of the peace still sits on the grounds of Pioneer Village at the Aztec Museum.
Fred Lawson, who died in 1989, held many titles in his 96 years — San Juan County assessor and treasurer, probate judge, police magistrate, to name a few — but his lasting legacy may be his nearly 20 years as Aztec's justice of the peace. The March 21 blaze decimated the house where he lived for more than 50 years. The home had been abandoned for several years.
Born in 1893 in Tunis, Mo., Lawson moved to Aztec in 1906. For most of his life, he lived in the green stucco home just north of Aztec High School on East Blanco Street. Next door on the east side of the house, Lawson worked in a single-room law office, where he performed more than 2,000 marriage ceremonies. Last month's fire spared the office, which is now part of the Pioneer Village.
Lawson himself married once, to Grace Pearle Hines at the bride's home just west of Aztec on Dec. 26, 1916.
"While some marriages are made in Heaven, some are made in the opposite direction," Lawson joked in a 1948 article by Willa Smith published in The Daily Times.
A man who liked to keep close to home, Lawson operated Lawson Tomato Cannery for two years just up the street from his home and law office, near Pollard Avenue.
With only a grade-school education, Lawson, who was known to have a photographic memory, studied all the subjects to teach at a grade school, taking a teaching certificate exam in one day. Students at the school called him "Mr. Webster," after his ability to define any word when asked, according to a biography of Lawson written by school teacher and family friend Zella Callaway. A copy of the biography is part of the Aztec Museum's collection of Lawson family documents and photographs.
Lawson was as prolific in legal matters as he was in writing fiction, historical articles and even poems and songs for his children. He sold his short stories — mostly westerns with titles like "The Goat Man," Making a Man of Him" and "He's a Wonder, Stub Is" — to publications like Holland's Magazine. He also published a series of cowboy stories in The Saturday Evening Post, featuring characters like Pretty Pete and Handsome Hank.
"He kept a box of rejection slips and joked about papering the bedroom walls with them," Callaway wrote in her biography of Lawson. "His children grew up reading aloud the stories from the manuscripts. They especially liked reading the ones that were marked 'sold' in the corner."
Lawson's grandson, Tom Stinson, still lives in Aztec.
"He was ambidextrous, and one of the things he used to say to couples who came to his justice of the peace office to be married was, 'Now, if I sign this with my right hand, you guys are going to stay together forever,'" Stinson said. "He had a real sense of humor. He liked people. He was a real hoot."
Later in life, Lawson collected rocks from his travels throughout New Mexico and Colorado, Stinson said.
"He was a rock collector," he said. "He owned interest in uranium and gold mines and was quite the collector. He had rocks lined all around his office, silver ore, among other kinds — tons and tons of rocks. He had two big rocks that stood on either side of the steps in front of the office."
Lawson's granddaughter Beverly Lawson, a retired librarian, clerked for the busy justice of the peace while she was a student at Aztec High School.
"He used a couple of the rocks as paperweights, and one rock I can still picture today I used to hold open the records book as I typed," she said. "I was his clerk after I got out of school each day, typing up his cases on an old Royal typewriter, probably the first paid work I ever had. He first had his daughters Madge and Marda clerk for him, and when they quit, then I did, typing mainly."
Lawson was stern-looking but had a great sense of humor and enjoyed visiting with people who came to see him, she said.
Of Lawson's five children, two daughters are still living, Grace Lorraine Ogden, in Los Alamos, and Marda Cooksey, in Albuquerque.
Cooksey, Lawson's youngest child, was sad to learn of the house fire from Beverly Lawson during a visit last month.
"I was born in that house," said Cooksey, 81, on Friday. "I have a lot of memories growing up there on Blanco Street."
Cooksey said her father was beloved and popular.
"He was truly a self-made man, really enjoyed the people that came into his office, people he married and came in for cases. He enjoyed visiting with people," she said. "I think he was very well-known around town from being judge. He was proud of all the marriages he had done. That was fun for him."